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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Stateless Societies

Bob Murphy recently posted on the "stateless" society of ancient Israel. ("Stateless" is in scare quotes not because I think Bob is wrong, but because what it means to have or not have a state is a contested issue. Many theorists of the state would say that Israel still didn't have a state even after Saul took the throne, in fact, that states didn't really exist until the 16th or 17th centuries A.D.)

Coincidentally, I have been thinking about such primitive, stateless societies a bit lately, specifically about their implications for anarchist theory. As I see it, there are a couple of important things about such societies that make them inapt examples for modern advocates of statelessness:

1) It is true that Israel under the judges, medieval Iceland, various American Indian tribes, and so on were not governed by a single, united authority. Instead, they were governed by customs and traditions that, in general, were far less libertarian than most central authorities have been. Think of getting stoned for eating shellfish, for instance: that may be a stateless society, but not a society that we moderns would consider particularly free!

2) As examples of "working anarchies" they are useless for the modern anarchist: yes, if we were governed as minutely by customs as had been the people of those examples, then their examples show us we could do without a sovereign. But, of course, we aren't, and there is no prospect we will be -- and would we even want to be? Rothbard recognized this to some extent, I think, and was trying to create such a set of new customs to rule over Rothbardia. But the effort never had a shot at success, and the resulting "society" repeatedly splintered into sub-factions.

14 comments:

  1. I was wondering when you'd comment on (or in relation to) Bob's post!

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  2. "Think of getting stoned for eating shellfish, for instance: that may be a stateless society, but not a society that we moderns would consider particularly free!"

    I don't think this is an accurate historical understanding, at least with respect to ancient Israel. The laws may have theoretically forbade eating shellfish or working on Sabbath, but I don't think there's any evidence of such laws ever being enforced against people. Rather, they were more like a hyperbolic cultural statement of values; actual punishment against violators probably consisted of social ostracization. As a practical matter, there were also so many procedural checks against enforcement -- you had to have multiple witnesses to the act, the violator had to be specifically warned ahead of time not to commit the act and to disregard the warnings, etc. -- that they couldn't be enforced anyway. Hence the saying that a Sanhedrin (supreme court) who puts someone to death as often as once every 70 years has blood on its hands.

    This is what I've always been taught, anyway. I'm certainly open to being corrected, if I am wrong!

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    1. OK, Mike, let's say you were only ostracized for eating shellfish? That still is not a libertarian society! (I'm not even saying it's a *worse* society, just certainly not libertarian.)

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    2. Why would you say that? It may not have been a libertarian society for other reasons, but shunning is not a libertarian rights violation per se. A community that refuses to deal with shellfish-eaters may not be the type of society in which most libertarians ideally would prefer to live, but it would be perfectly consistent with freedom of association and property rights.

      BTW, I'm not arguing that Ancient Israel was some sort of libertarian utopia -- I honestly don't know enough history to say what life was really like under "stateless" Israel. I'm just suggesting that I don't think your post is quite the knock-down argument against Bob that you think it is.

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    3. "Why would you say that?"

      Because I am using "liberatarian" in the ordinary sense of "very free," rather than in some bizarre Rothbardian sense?

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    4. You mean when you are arguing with known Rothbardians, who know of your history as a former Rothbardian (or at least, Rothbard-sympathizer), you purposely use a non-Rothbardian definition of a word which you acknowledge has a special meaning to Rothbardians?

      (To say nothing of the fact that no dictionary I've found defines libertarian as "very free", probably on account of it being a terrible definition.)

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    5. Very first dictionary I chose: "a person who believes in full individual freedom of thought, expression, and action"

      And a libertarian society would have those freedoms and be, therefore... very free!

      I just used the word in its ordinary sense, unknown. I can't help it that Rothbard and Hoppe gave it a perverse meaning!

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    6. Oh, and two other things, Unknown:

      1) I wasn't offering a "definition" of libertarian, I was just indicating the sense in which I was using it... but then, you knew that, and were just being a jerk, right?

      2) I was once an anarcho-capitalist. I was never, ever a Rothbardian, or even close to being one.

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    7. You seem to be conflating libertarian with libertine. A libertarian society still has some boundaries: namely, property rights. So taking something that isn't your property, without permission, is unlibertarian.

      Second, part of "freedom of thought, expression, and action" is freedom of association--including disassociation. For example, if I knew of a businessman who had expressly declared and demonstrated himself as a person who enjoys wearing urine- and feces-stained pants, I (and others) would have a right not to patronize his business.

      Same if I, and others in my community, treated eating shellfish with similar revulsion. However, the instance someone suggests violence as a recourse to dealing with people who eat shellfish (assuming they obtained the shellfish via legitimate means), or violence against people who merely associate with shellfish eaters, *then* that is unlibertarian.

      Also, stating or describing the meaning of a word or phrase, regardless of whether that is sense in which you're using it, or someone else is using it, or someone ought to be using it, is in fact the very definition of... a definition!

      Finally, regarding your Rothbardianism, mea culpa. I'm sorry for assuming that as an anarcho-capitalist, as well as a writer for LRC and scholar of the Mises Institute you had read your fair share of Rothbard. At least, enough to know that libertarian does not mean libertine.

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    8. "You seem to be conflating libertarian with libertine."

      You seem to be conflating making up someone else's views with reading what they wrote.

      "A libertarian society still has some boundaries: namely, property rights."

      To make libertarianism strictly equal to strong property rights is something that Rothbard and his followers have done. But they do not get to rewrite the English language. The word was in use long before them, and meant something like "A social system that put liberty first among all social goals," and that might or might ot include property rights as an important *part* of liberty.

      "Same if I, and others in my community, treated eating shellfish with similar revulsion."

      Whether a society in which people are universally shunned for eating shellfish could be called libertarian is doubtful to me. But one in which they are ostracized, which means being thrown out of the community, certainly is not.

      "Also, stating or describing the meaning of a word or phrase, regardless of whether that is sense in which you're using it, or someone else is using it, or someone ought to be using it, is in fact the very definition of... a definition!"

      If someone says "Which (k)night do you mean?" and their partner in conversation responds "You know: the guys on horses" they certainly are not giving their *definition* of knight! They are saying enough so that the person they are talking to will know which definition they mean.

      *Here* is the definition of definition: "the formal statement of the meaning or significance of a word, phrase, idiom, etc., as found in dictionaries."

      See that part about *formal* statement?! Did you realize you can actually look these things up online, and see what the definition of "definition" is, and not have to make it up as you go along?

      "you had read your fair share of Rothbard."

      And that I did. But: who cares how Rothbard re-defined a word? (Oh, if I am writing a history of perversions of libertarian thought I may care.) But that I continue to use a word in the ordinary sense found in the dictionary really should not cause you such consternation.

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    9. Gene,

      "Because I am using "liberatarian" in the ordinary sense of "very free," rather than in some bizarre Rothbardian sense?"

      OK, let's just use the term in its ordinary sense and compare Bob's example of a stateless society with our own.

      Society A (Ancient Israel):

      Rule: If you ingest forbidden the substance (shellfish or pork), the community will choose not to speak with or do business with you.

      Society B (the modern state)

      Rule: If you ingest the forbidden substance (take your pick of any of the countless "controlled substances"), men with guns will throw you into a rape dungeon.

      Now, it isn't hard to see which of these two societies -- at least on this issue -- is relatively *closer* to the goal of being "very free."

      "Whether a society in which people are universally shunned for eating shellfish could be called libertarian is doubtful to me. But one in which they are ostracized, which means being thrown out of the community, certainly is not."

      This is an interesting question. My understanding of Jewish excommunication is that the person would not be forced out of his home, but rather people would simply not deal with that person. But I could well be wrong. If I am, and the person is forcibly removed from the community, then I agree that that is not libertarian.

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  3. Sorry, unknown: each of your comments is getting more pettily tendentious than the previous one. I am a busy man, and haven't the time for stupid nit-picking.

    I used the *widely accepted* definition of libertarianism. I consider Rothbard's definition, in fact, anti-libertarian, *which is exactly what I was trying to point out*. So of course I'm not going to employ a definition that I think is perverse and that assumes the very point I am contesting!

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    1. Basically, your comments add up to a long whinge: "Waah! Why won't you play the definition game by my rules, because then I would win, by definition!"

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  4. On #2:

    I don't think that what the customs are matter so much as the fact that customs can and have acted as a governing edict.

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